Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?

Some people believe that CERN's new Large Hadron Collider will create black holes that will destroy the Earth.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, General Science

Skeptoid #109
July 15, 2008
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Imagine a $10 billion underground ring-shaped tunnel, 27 km in circumference, so big that it stretches through both France and Switzerland: One ring to rule them all, the new Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, scheduled to come online around about August 2008.

A collider is the basic tool of particle physics. You take a stream of particles, accelerate them to really high kinetic energy levels, and slam them into a target. Depending on the experiment, all sorts of exotic things happen. Most experiments are to create new particles predicted by theory or to examine their behavior. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, has two beams traveling in opposite directions around the 27 km circle, each accelerated to 7 TeV (trillion electron volts) of energy and traveling at 99.999999% of the speed of light, held in place by powerful magnets. All around the ring are different experiment stations. To perform an experiment, you turn on the experimental detector and use the magnets to collide the beams into each other head-on inside your detector, creating 600 million 14 TeV collisions per second. That's a pretty high energy level, and we expect to learn all sorts of new and exotic things about the universe. Most famously, we hope to find the theorized Higgs boson, the particle that creates mass; but the collider's various experiments will produce knowledge that will permeate virtually every science we have.

As you may have heard by now, some people have voiced concerns that particle collisions from the LHC will create tiny black holes. Black holes have such intense gravity that they consume everything around them, even light. And so, within a fraction of a second, this tiny black hole will consume the collider itself, France, Switzerland, and then the entire Earth, presumably followed shortly thereafter by our whole solar system. Clearly not a fear to be taken lightly.

The best known opposition to the Large Hadron Collider comes in the form of a much publicized lawsuit, filed in Hawaii by two individuals, science writer Luis Sancho and retired nuclear safety officer Walter L. Wagner, against the US Department of Energy, Fermilab, CERN, the National Science Foundation and Does 1-100. The lawsuit presents affidavits from the plaintiffs and five other individuals, stating their opinion that dangerous black holes could be formed and seeking to block operation of the collider until these fears can be adequately studied. It seems a reasonable precaution, given how incredibly gigantic and powerful the LHC is, and how Biblical the scale of the destruction it might wreak.

Yet, the Large Hadron Collider is but a donut compared to what the United States' Superconducting Supercollider would have been. The SSC, as it was known until its cancellation in 1993, would have had a circumference of 87 km and a beam energy of 30 TeV — that's more than three times the size of the LHC and more than twice the energy. And even the mighty SSC was but a Cheerio compared to the hypothetical Very Large Hadron Collider proposed by Fermilab, with a circumference of 105 to 650 km, and a beam energy of 40 to 200 TeV! So when you compare the LHC to other possible colliders, you realize that yeah it's crazy big, but it's not that big and it's nowhere near the energy levels that are possible. It's certainly not the "ultimate doomsday device" that some fearmongering detractors are making it out to be.

And, even after looking at other possible larger colliders, if you're still concerned that 14 TeV represents the pinnacle of danger, just look at the naturally occurring collisions happening all around us every day. Cosmic rays in the LHC's energy range are hitting the atmosphere constantly, and have been for 4 billion years, creating the same type of collisions that the collider will produce. Some of these, called Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays, have been measured at over 1020 electron volts, ten million times as energetic as the LHC's maximum energy. While that sounds like a staggering amount, it's about the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 kph. That's a lot for a single proton, but it's hardly the destruction of the planet.

So one way to think of this is that the Large Hadron Collider is just an impotent little Spaghetti-O compared to the greatest supercollider of them all: The universe. Nature's supercollider has been going for billions of years at energies millions of times higher than human scientists can dream about. So far, neither Earth nor any of the other planets, nor even any super-dense astronomical bodies like neutron stars, have suffered from particle collisions. In fact, according to Dr. Brian Cox at CERN, the universe conducts the equivalent of ten trillion lifetime runs of the LHC every second, and has been doing so for billions of years, with not a single observable consequence.

The main reason is that micro black holes of the type that particle collisions can create behave very differently than the giant supernova-sized black holes you see in movies. They don't eat anything. Instead, they explode with a tiny little micro pop. Most people have heard of Hawking radiation, which is emitted by black holes. As large black holes eat stuff, they also evaporate away as Hawking radiation. The smaller the black hole, the more energetic this evaporation. For a micro black hole, this evaporation happens at essentially the same instant it is created, or at least, this is what is theorized: Specifically, they would decay instantaneously into hadron jets and high PT leptons, which are one thing that we actually hope to see with the LHC. As for Sancho and Wagner's concerns, they are not the first people to conceive of these events; and whether they like to think so or not, the subject has already been studied — exhaustively, in fact — and it's been part of the plans since many years before they contrived their little lawsuit. In fact, four years before Sancho and Wagner filed their lawsuit, CERN completed its report based on decades of research into the safety of the collider, which concludes:

We consider all such objects that have been theoretically envisaged, such as negatively charged strangelets, gravitational black holes, and magnetic monopoles. We find no basis for any conceivable threat.

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As a backup in case their black hole alarmism should fail, Sancho and Wagner also proposed a danger from strangelets created by the LHC. Strangelets are unusual particles composed of an eclectic mixture of similar numbers of up, down, and strange quarks. This so-called strange matter is one candidate for the dark matter in the universe. The theoretical threat from strangelets would be that their negative charge would attract and consume the positively charged nuclei of ordinary matter. However this supposition is based on a long chain of "ifs", a chain in which every link is broken. For one thing, most calculations of strange matter show that strangelets would have a positive charge. For another, strangelets can only be stable enough to exist at extremely low temperatures; and their creation in a particle collision would result in extremely high temperatures in which the strangelets must immediately decay. And even if somehow a collision did create a very cold, stable, negatively charged strangelet, it could only grow so long as its charge remained negative, which of course would no longer be the case after it had consumed a handful of positively charged nuclei; and it would then become a harmless particle of ordinary matter.

Unfortunately, the mass media isn't doing anyone any favors. News outlets continue to promote alarmism with headlines like this one from MSNBC: "Doomsday Under Debate", or this one from CNN: "Some Fear Debut of Powerful Atom-Smasher", claiming "The safety of the powerful collider has been debated for years". Absolutely untrue. There is no "debate" among knowledgeable particle physicists. There is plenty of fear mongering and ignorance, and also plenty of "cooler heads" who have been given this misinformation and are now issuing reasonable-sounding warnings like "the potential risks are so high that we should step back and investigate these concerns." These people advocating caution have neither valid theoretical arguments nor any information to refute the physicists' observations, and don't appear to have taken even the most fundamental steps to inform themselves about the issues they are so passionately pursuing. Instead, they make apocalyptic anti-science web sites like SaneScience.org and LHCFacts.org to spread misinformation.

You don't have "two sides" to science. There is no "listening to both sides". Science is not philosophy or opinion. Science consists of what we've learned so far. And one thing that we've learned so far, and validated with billions of years of universe-scale observation, is that a particle collider represents no plausible danger, and offers astonishing potential for furthering our knowledge. Hang onto your hats, because the Large Hadron Collider is going to bring unprecedented advances in medicine, clean energy production, unified field theory, computing, and astrophysics. Get on board for the ride!

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Blaizot, J.P., Iliopoulos, J., Madsen, J., Ross, G.G., Sonderegger, P., Specht, H.J. "Study of potentially dangerous events during heavy-ion collisions at the LHC: Report of the LHC Safety Study Group." CERN 2003–001. European Organization for Nuclear Research, 28 Feb. 2003. Web. 1 Jun. 2008. <http://doc.cern.ch/yellowrep/2003/2003-001/p1.pdf>

Cox, Brian. "Brian Cox on CERN's supercollider." TED Ideas Worth Spreading. The Sapling Foundation, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 10 May. 2008. <http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/brian_cox_on_cern_s_supercollider.html>

Dar, A., De Rujula, A., Heinz, U. "Will relativistic heavy-ion colliders destroy our planet?" Physics Letters B. 16 Dec. 1999, Volume 470, Number 1: 142-148.

Hawking, Stephen. "Particle creation by black holes." Communications in Mathematical Physics. 1 Aug. 1975, Volume 43, Number 3: 199-220.

Jaffe, R. L., Busza, W., Wilczek, F., Sandweiss, J. "Review of speculative “disaster scenarios” at RHIC." Reviews of Modern Physics. 1 Oct. 2000, Volume 72, Number 4: 1125-1140.

Seife, Charles. "Fly's Eye Spies Highs in Cosmic Rays' Demise." Science. 19 May 2000, Volume 288, No. 5469: 1147.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 15 Jul 2008. Web. 4 Jul 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4109>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 277 comments

"Imagine the trillions so far from this LHC being pumped back into the worlds economies by a bigger better more efficient project.."

Yes quite true. Imaginary. I would like to see how "trillions are being pumped back into the worlds economies" by engaging in billions being paid out for atomic pinball games.........

Macky, Auckland
June 27, 2015 8:49pm

Thanks guys for another OP to get some young folks interested in trades, professions and specialties in the sciences and engineering.

This monument to mans desire to understand things could have just been built and folks could have said.. well this is the pyramid of this age and shut it down.. the leaps in technology required to build it repaid the world by many - many trillions. Just the data systems (you guys call it the internet) alone has allowed for communications that are not unparalleled but are staggering to what we had pre 88..

But heres a bit of conspiracy muck raking.. why have they got 100-200 million years worth of operational hydrogen gas storage for the beam line..

Think about it.

Theres no holy Joe and fatuous comparison in blue sky science.

The results are starting to flow and you guys have an internet to peruse!

Who would have thought a profit of indecent orders of magnitude would flow from blue sky science..

We didnt need a world war for this.. and look! No bloodletting..

Mulga Gill, Sydney
June 28, 2015 10:46pm

Hogwash.

" This monument to mans desire to understand things....." 99.999% (est.) of "man" don't desire to understand things at all, outside of their own day-to-day living and needs for their families and surroundings.

Certainly not how the first moments of the Big Bang unfolded etc.
Who but a comparatively few boffins are interested in such matters ?

Over 10% of the world's population go to bed hungry every night. The world's safe drinking water is drying up, and here we have billions of euros spent on trying to find out conditions that existed 13.7 billion years ago, and have never existed since. Particles conjured into existence which only existed billions of years ago. What for ?

It's a form of insanity, the fixation of "science" at any cost. The trades, professions, and specialties in science and engineering could be better spent in solving the world's problems NOW, not mucking around trying to find something from so long ago that only a few would understand anyway.

Macky, Auckland
June 30, 2015 12:43am

Wonderful.. a site that just keeps giving opportunities for comments.

Lets deal with the conspiracists (not theorist) complaints..

They are making black holes to;
a) end the world.
b) to free the dark angels from hell (I kid you not)
c) to get even with the French

all three being ludicrous, we'll move on.
They are making singlets to;
a to c above..

Guess what? The folks at CERN are doing precisely those things because of prior experience. The singlets are noise when looking for Higgs events and the black holes are the next Nobel prize round if they can pull it off.

So why do we do these monumental things under government (yes elected people) approval so now kids can get their jollies doing degrees now and into the future and trades folk get more and more technological training and experience to take back to their countries?

Firstly, the question answers itself (what person would not take that platinum bit of experience?).

But what does science do for the people at the hard up and suffering part of the world?

Look at starvation; A tragedy that still exists and hopefully is continually reduced as it has been in Brian's and my lifetime.. thanks to science and the political will to implement the technologies that come from it (Here, a reasonable current evaluation 1950 - 2010 ; http://ourworldindata.org/VisualHistoryOf/Hunger.html#/title-slide).

I'll continue if required..

(Science, yer 100% human science.. The ape like science is not worth mentioning)

Mulga Gill, Sydney
June 30, 2015 5:45am

There has never been any assertion from myself of the above, namely :-
They are making black holes to;
a) end the world.
b) to free the dark angels from hell (I kid you not)
c) to get even with the French

Neither have I said that science is not trying to deal with/is dealing with/has dealt with, world problems such as hunger and the depletion of natural resources etc.

I am not anti-science. I am specifically against the recreation of particles that existed 13.7 billions years ago, and have never existed since, in the attempt to re-create conditions shortly after the Big Bang.

Said attempts have already been assigned a degree of uncertainty by STFC scientists, and by plain logic it's an exercise in Russian roulette.

They are "conjuring" (their own word) into existence particles that have never existed since that time long ago, and such experiments are creating unnatural conditions that do not exist anywhere in the known universe today, even though we are only looking back in time to various degrees when we observe the stars (and now exoplanets).

There has never been any assertions that science is not a marvelous enterprise by mankind, in general. I receive emails from NASA's JBL on a regular basis and they are a source of wonderment as scientists search the solar system and universe.

The pursuit of conditions shortly after the Big Bang, with particles recreated that have never existed since that time, is a foolhardy enterprise with an science-admitted uncertainty.

Macky, Auckland
June 30, 2015 1:06pm

Its getting pretty obvious that no one resents anything about the CERN operations to date. I cant see any that have occurred that raises any of the objections of the skeptoid users. There could be the odd one that people are confused about;

The international profit business of the venture (all internet sales and technology providers seem to be doing a roaring trade.. enjoying the phone and TV lately?) has been established.. It is staggering compared to the spin off from the space race where we churlishly placed men on the moon (every dollar invested returned @ 15 to the participating economies).

So.. the lack of people to appreciate the results of the venture There are so far a piddling @700 universities looking forward to more to teach its undergrads in physics [if 45 years of it wasn't enough of an endorsement] looking forward to post grads in specialties in science and engineering and of course expertise by way of doctoral and post doc work on the particle/nuclear physics itself, ulta precise semiconductors and implanted materials and high tech engineering.

But thats the sort of stuff you would expect from a place called CERN (look it up).

Profoundly democratic for 50 years.. and looking forward to that lead ion series of experiments (apparently the one that is the earth shattering kaboom) that will give us far more applications to technology in the near future.

Probably never get to use up that few hundred million years of reserve H2

Mulga Gill, Sydney
July 1, 2015 11:03pm

Perfectly adequate TV's, computers etc were up and running well, for decades before the LHC was started up.

I haven't had any objections to particle accelerators in general, nor do I have now. There must be dozens of other sensible experiments going on, with their benefits, that do not involve the asinine compulsive quest to find fundamental particles by trying to recreate conditions that existed shortly after the Big Bang.

As I have said over and over again, I am specifically against the recreation of particles that existed only 13.7 billion years ago, and have never existed since, until now inside the LHC, not against science in general.

The stated uncertainty by scientists should serve as a warning to anyone that there is a minute chance, no matter how small, that something "unexpected" may happen, as they "conjure" up particles that have never been around since 13.7 billion years ago.

"Its getting pretty obvious that no one resents anything about the CERN operations to date. "

The bulk of the "no ones" wouldn't even know of the LHC, nor what it does, nor would they care.
Not even citizens in our "western democracies". Those such as perhaps the majority of Skeptoid readers/posters simply have no objection because it's all being carried out by Authority i.e. top particle physicists from many countries, who "know what they're doing".

Given that uncertainties exist (no matter how small), there is no guarantee that "something unexpected" won't happen tomorrow.

Macky, Auckland
July 2, 2015 6:41pm

I don't know what Dunning is getting at when he says you can't have two sides in science. You can certainly have a debate. As an example, ever since the time of Newton in the late 17th century there has been a debate over the nature of light - is it a wave, or a series of "corpuscles" to use Newton's term (or in modern language, quanta). It is now generally regarded as both, but the point is that there was a long-running debate between reputable scientists on the question.

Alvin Hopper, Canberra
July 2, 2015 8:49pm

Thats easy.. you can calculate things, provide errors and then expect a lot of failure at the back end of research and be surprised by other serendipitous results..

But you cant BS your way into thinking garbage is science .. Like what happens here in skeptoid comments.

Canberra must be freezing.. The birds dont walk on the grass till 9 am here in gerringong and down at batemans..

So, given that ITER is supposed to be getting built @ provence right now at 15 Billion to its member states.. And this time (??) they do expect results.. Doesnt the ridiculous whining about CERN look even more ridiculous..

Enough to chemtrail your psychic dower quacks..!

Whats that resounding spin off for CERN again?.. Its almost obsene.

I think that the misrepresentation of a comment about the early universe as a somewhat meaningful argument is now junked.

The cost (read massive profit) is junked.

An earth shattering kaboom.. that was junked the day it was uttered and well before Brian mentioned it.

Maybe we can complain about the squeaky wheels on the tunnel cars..

Mulga Gill, Sydney
July 3, 2015 1:24am

More convoluted musings designed to muddle the discussion into getting away from the main point that even scientists have admitted some uncertainty.

Macky, Auckland
July 3, 2015 3:33pm

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